Voices of dissent rise at school bond forum
Despite some vocal citizens opposed to Storm Lake School District’s $29 million bond up for a vote in December, school leaders are confident that the space need will motivate voters.
With about 930 students, the Elementary School is “bursting at the seams,” Superintendent Stacey Cole told attendees Tuesday night in the music room that has been repurposed to hold regular classes. The building they met in was intended to hold a little over 700. The Middle School is similarly strapped, she said, with an even smaller building.
Most grades in the school have seven or eight sections. This year, the kindergarten class there has nine - which has forced some difficult decisions. As bigger classes came through, extra classrooms built for English Language Learner and Title I teachers had to be converted to general education classrooms to keep class sizes smaller - a critical component to success as the building blocks of education and learning are formed in young children, research shows.
A shared space area was intended for special purposes like events, speakers and experiences for all students. Now, a kindergarten is housed there with makeshift walls and accordion-style folding doors that get pushed back on wheels to be open and shut.
The thin, portable pieces that now constitute walls resemble the sides of a cubicle. They leave a gap of two to three feet towards the ceiling, meaning that they don’t control any noise for the young children housed inside of them - a potential for many problems with young students with limited attention spans.
Another section in that shared space, now used for small-group purposes, is an adult arm’s length away from the lockers in the hallway.
Cole believes the proposed solution is the best way forward for the district’s growth needs.
“Why did you go from three to four elementary buildings to one if you knew it would be too many kids in one building?” asked one attendee, referring to the other elementary schools that were brought to the current location.
Capacity at other buildings had no way to expand, Cole responded. With the consolidation to one location, students across the board would get a consistent education. Differences tend to develop between different buildings, such as culture, rituals, pet projects in classes, and turnover of staff with retiring teachers and new teachers brought in. “Consistency is a lot easier to do if you’re all in one place and having face-to-face conversations,” Cole said.
“Why can’t you add on to this building?” asked Barb Loving. “This seems to be excessive to go to a new location.”
Building onto the existing elementary school would require a new cafeteria and gymnasium for a few reasons, Cole responded. Adding just 15 more children to the current building would require that lunch start at 10:05 a.m.—25 minutes earlier than its current early lunch start of 10:30.
The cafeteria is in use literally all day, she said, from 7:20 a.m. to about 6 p.m. The scheduled time in-between meals and meal cleanup is maxed out for small groups and other purposes.
Laws also dictate that children eat within a certain time frame of going home, meaning that a 10:05 meal would require them to either go home earlier or be provided another meal. Besides, that Cole said it’s just not reasonable for kids to be eating lunch that early.
The middle school is maxed out with portables, with no room for expansion, as Loving suggested Cole and the school board do. Additions to the middle school are constrained by a water main and easement, which would require the removal of the playground and football practice space. Additions to other district buildings are similarly landlocked.
Attendee Lynn Hardt suggested that Storm Lake cut its capacity for preschool and tell parents who didn’t make the cut for slots to go to private preschools, or cut the programming to half-day to add more slots.
“Preschool isn’t mandated.” she said. “School isn’t mandated until age 6.” (The state requirement for mandatory schooling doesn’t start until age 7.)
Storm Lake’s School District chooses to adhere to the third level of NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children), the highest accreditation standards, to provide top-tier offerings that attract young professionals to our district, beyond being just the highest quality the district can offer for early childhood success.
Loving continued to harp on the question of preschool offerings, cutting off responses offered by Cole and financial adviser Matt Gillaspie, Senior Vice President of investment firm Piper Jaffray. “Why aren’t parents responsible for preschool?” she asked, saying the parents of her grandchildren in Minneapolis were responsible for their own preschool costs. “All of a sudden we’ve got a preschool here. When did it start?”
Preschool programs offered in Storm Lake are funded by the state as part of legislation signed by Governor Branstad several years ago, Cole said. Taxpayers are not burdened at an extra rate for this funding, such as they might be with the levy they will vote on next month.
“Governor Branstad is not the governor of Minnesota,” Jaffray offered, to clarify Loving’s confusion as to why Minnesota did not have the same preschool funding set-ups as Iowa.
Loving also suggested that the district stop offering preschool to 4-year-olds since it’s not legally required to.
“I want to do the very best job educating our youngest kids as I possibly can,” Cole said. Of 333 school districts in Iowa, 226 of them offer Pre-K programming.
“If we eliminated that programming at East, we would be in the bottom for schools in Iowa. that’s not what I want for Storm Lake. I don’t want to be at the bottom of anything for Storm Lake,” she said.
“You are packing 930 children into rat spaces,” one attendee, a hospital social worker, chimed in. “You’re seeing mental health issues and behaviors because you’re packing so many kids into rat spaces.”
Cole agreed that the matter of expansion was urgent.
Two questions will be on the ballot for the initiative. The first will ask permission for the district to borrow money. The other will ask permission to increase the levy rate. If voters approve, the bond would take 22 years to pay off.
The construction of the proposed project is scheduled for two phases. If voters see the need to expand and 60 percent vote yes, the district will wait until after construction of the first phase to decide whether the elementary or middle school is in more desperate need of relief.